Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
So sad. So liberating.
So sad Nelson Mandela’s passing. His dogged persistence in pursuing justice, his insistence that the struggle against racism could not be compromised, and his calming assurance that enemies could cohabit now become legacies that we are charged to maintain.
So liberating Nelson Mandela’s living. Overcoming discrimination, exploitation, and repression is possible. Unassailable fortresses can be breached, indeed crumble, when people mobilize, organize, and challenge. Struggling against injustice is humanizing. Demanding equality provides a foundation for community. Community sustains us.
Courageous and stubborn, Nelson Mandela provided a vision and a moral compass, not only for South Africa but for the world. Flawed and human, he captured our imagination, linked struggles in diverse settings, encouraged our efforts, and chastised us when we permitted defeats, even death, to weaken our resolve or disable our determination.
Celebrating his life is to refuse to accept that inequality is normal, that injustice can be tolerated, and that addressing poverty, ignorance, and disease in so much of the world is someone else’s responsibility.
Extraordinary! After more than a quarter century in prison, not only did Nelson Mandela survive, but he could have been elected president in a dozen countries. How did he get there? What do we learn?
Nelson Mandela the activist. The pace of change, he insisted in the 1940s, is inadequate. His entry into the African National Congress was not as a statesman or reconciler, though he was those, but rather as a rebel, a critic, a dissident. The leaders, he charged, must step aside so that others can re-frame the issues and set the pace.
Nelson Mandela the terrorist. Reform has failed, he argued to his colleagues and patiently explained to his judges. Armed struggle is not only necessary, but also morally correct. The fundamental issue is injustice, not order or stability or incremental change.
Recall that the United States concurred in designating Nelson Mandela a terrorist and was complicit in his arrest and incarceration. Notwithstanding reiterated commitments to self-determination and decolonization, other national interests were deemed far more important than supporting a just cause.
Nelson Mandela the national and international conscience. He was criticized for working with communists. Who supported us when it mattered? he asked. He was chastised for welcoming Fidel Castro. Who sustained our mobilization and struggle while others continued to support racism and institutionalized discrimination? he responded. He asked all of us — directly in the Bay Area at the Oakland Coliseum in 1990 — where were you? Where are you? Where do you stand?
Opposing injustice is risky, then and now, challenging power has serious personal and collective consequences. Doing so effectively requires finding ways to collaborate with and recognize the leadership of the disadvantaged, those for whom political and social institutions are, and are designed to be, disempowering.
Nelson Mandela, a man of his time. Guiding and shaping the transition to majority rule, insisting that the government be accountable for its brutality and then insisting that the brutality must not be an insurmountable obstacle in creating a new South Africa, was a momentous accomplishment. The intensity and excitement of that process rippled across Africa and around the world.
But poverty persists in post-apartheid South Africa. As some have secured far better lives, inequality has intensified. Poverty and disadvantage are racialized and gendered. Desegregation has not yet become integration. Non-racialism is not yet effective anti-racialism.
Just as Nelson Mandela’s passing leaves South Africa’s transformation incomplete, he leaves a challenge for all of us. To recognize injustice. To analyze injustice. To understand that injustice is not an unfortunate legacy of a troubled past but is created and re-created daily. To understand too that injustice is structured, embedded in institutions and customs, and frequently only dimly visible. To confront injustice. To understand that challenging injustice requires not only thinking about what I can do but even more important, focusing on how I can join with and support those whose daily lives are mobilizing and struggling against injustice.
Nelson Mandela, the heroic figure, has shown clearly that overcoming injustice, transforming society, is not a function of individual heroism but of collective action, not primarily the result of an inspiring leader but of participation, mobilization, and organization.
To celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life is to respond to that challenge.
Center for African Studies